Those of us who come from families with military connections know that during holiday seasons, it is especially important to remember the sacrifices of Americans who are serving in the US Armed Forces. As they fight to restore liberty to people across the globe and maintain our freedom at home, many Jewish soldiers celebrate Passover far from familiar surroundings. A Stars and Stripes article about a military Seder in Europe caught my eye yesterday and made me think of similar stories that have become a part of our artifact collection in recent years.
Wartime Seders organized by or for soldiers are nothing new and there are documented examples dating back to the Civil War in America. During World War II Passover, when families and friends come together to retell the story of the ancient Israelites’ liberation from bondage, took on very contemporary significance due to the extreme suffering of Europe’s Jewish communities.
Program and photograph from a Seder at Camp Grant, Rockville, Illinois, 1944
National Museum of American Jewish History, 2011.124
Gift of Henry and Grace Sealine
The Jewish Welfare Board, established during World War I to tend to the spiritual needs of American Jewish soldiers by recruiting chaplains and arranging for prayer books, worked with the Jewish War Veterans and Ladies Auxiliaries to host a 1944 Seder for soldiers and personnel stationed at Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois. Rabbi Aaron Tofield, one of the 311 Jewish chaplains who served in World War II, officiated and 800 soldiers attended, along with many of their spouses who were visiting for the holiday. Henry Sealine (the farthest man to the right in the photo above, with his shoulder marked "ME" in white ink), was at the camp for basic training and he kept the program as a souvenir of the event. The back of the program includes a space to write a note home to your family, in a not-too-subtle hint to the new soldiers to keep in touch with the folks.>
Photograph from a Seder in Liege, Belgium, 1945
National Museum of American Jewish History, 2012.4.1
Gift of the Feinberg/ Berg family in memory of Sidney Feinberg
Sidney Feinberg was in Belgium serving as a teletypist in the spring of 1945 when he became friendly with the rabbi of the recently reopened synagogue in nearby Liege after walking there – for four miles every Friday evening – to attend services. Feinberg recalled that when the US Army asked the Yiddish and French speaking rabbi to conduct a Seder for the enlisted personnel in the area. The rabbi in turn asked Feinberg and another soldier, Captain Matthew Kleinman to assist him in overcoming the language barrier by standing with him and translating his words into English. This photo shows the crowd in the requisitioned skating rink where the event was held – just a few of the thousands of enlisted American men and women who participated. Many of these GIs and WACs were still in the area after they served in the Battle of the Bulge nearby just a few months earlier.
Photograph of George Halpern with his Seder hosts, 1943
National Museum of American Jewish History, 2011.102.80
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. George M. Halpern
Soldiers who were overseas but perhaps not at a big military installation or in an area where there happened to be many fellow Jewish soldiers could observe holidays with local families. George Halpern, stationed in Australia in 1943, sent this photograph home to his family, telling them about the “swell” Melbourne family the USO had put him in contact with for Passover.
Far from home during a holiday that is very community-oriented, Jewish soldiers joined with chaplains, fellow soldiers, local clergy, and civilians, to forge new wartime communities and observe their faith during an extraordinary time in their lives. Assisted and encouraged to do this by both Jewish and secular organizations, many of them noted that the military Seders they experienced during World War II held special significance with the awareness that they were fighting to help their coreligionists who were suffering through the Holocaust.
So, this Passover, please remember those soldiers who are serving far from home this spring!
-Contributed by Claire Pingel, Chief Registrar and Associate Curator
March 27, 2013